July 2013: The Worst Video Media Disaster

More than 40 people were killed earlier this month when a 73-car train filled with oil derailed in Quebec and slammed into downtown Lac-Mégantic.

The accident, Canada’s deadliest in almost 150 years, was horrific—some people sitting in a café, for example, were reportedly burned alive after fleeing, while others jumped from a building’s third floor to escape the inferno.

Edward Burkhardt, the chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railways (whose train was responsible for the damage), managed to make matters worse. He waited several days before showing up and giving a press conference—and when he did, he made an even bigger mess of things.

Lac Megantic Ottawa Citizen

Mr. Burkhardt comes across in this press conference with the analytical nature one might expect from someone in a more technical profession. In so doing, he demonstrates that there is a mile-wide chasm between intelligence and emotional intelligence—and while he might have a lot of the former, it’s clear that he has little of the latter.

This press conference is a good example of what not to do. It’s worth watching in its entirety.

1. It was all about him.

He began the press conference by talking about his own feelings: ”I feel absolutely awful about this. I’m devastated by what’s occurred in this community. I have never been involved in anything remotely approaching this in my whole life.”

That’s not a bad start, but he failed to follow it up with a genuine statement of concern or commitment for the victims and the community. As a result, the inescapable takeaway was that his primary concern was himself, not the victims. (That may or may not be true, but it’s what his communications style reasonably led many people to believe.) The fact that he reportedly hadn’t met with the victims’ families didn’t help.

2. He showed up too late. 

At the very beginning of the press conference, he perseverated over the question of why he hadn’t shown up sooner. “Frankly, it was easier [remaining in my office] than running around here with a cell phone in my hand and trying to do it from here.”

That may be true—but he seems completely oblivious to the fact that being present and exhibiting genuine compassion for victims is a necessary component of modern day crisis communications. In fact, he shockingly told one reporter, “I’m not a communications professional. I’m a manager,” as if competent management doesn’t require competent communications. (Plus, he was the Vice President of Marketing for Chicago and North Western Transportation, where he presumably needed to know something about communications.)

3. He talked business.

Burkhardt talked about insurance. He also talked about bankruptcy, future plans for the railroad, claims, and a key customer. None of that was appropriate. His responses should have maintained a laser-like focus on the victims: “There will be a time and place to discuss the financial impact of this incident on our company. Right now, nothing is more important than putting plans in place to make sure these families and this community are taken care of.”

4. He disrespected the community.

Incredibly, Mr. Burkhardt tried to assume the “victim’s” mantle, telling reporters:

“I thought people would respond to my willingness to come there…I mean, they were screaming about how I took three days to get there…People wanted to throw stones at me. I showed up and they threw stones. But that doesn’t accomplish anything.”

Those comments lead inevitably to point number five…

5. He looked like a jerk.

Mr. Burkhardt was condescending toward the press, even turning sarcastic when he asked one reporter, “Were you here a few minutes ago when I answered that?”

Given his demeanor, I question his decision to give a full press conference. He might have done better in a one-on-one format (particularly with print reporters who wouldn’t have shown video of his non-empathetic tone). He needed to say something, but I wonder whether a more able communicator within his company should have done the longer press conference. That’s not preferable in a crisis of this magnitude, but in this case, it might have been a more sound decision.

The lowest point came when he engaged in a pathetic attempt at wit. When one reporter asked, “How much are you worth?” Burkhardt responded, “A whole lot less than I was on Saturday.” In terms of summing up his self-focused tone, that quip was perhaps his most telling remark of all.

Photo Credit: Ottawa Citizen

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